A Game of Incident Rather Than Quality
Prior to kick-off the commentator, with customary TV hyperbole, was promising a mouth-watering spectacle from the St Mary’s Stadium. What we got was a match full of incident but short of real quality. As happens far too frequently in Premier League football the pattern of the game was defined more by a red card and other refereeing decisions than by the skill and cunning of the highly paid participants. Arguably it made for an entertaining contest, at least for the victors, or even the neutral had there been any watching. The merrymaking started in the pre-match kickabout when Winston Reid, concerned by the shortening Hammer’s injury list and weighed down by his new contract extension, had to be stretchered off the pitch to leave a formidable Jose Fonte – Angelo Ogbonna pairing at the heart of the Hammer’s defence. The consequence of Reid’s injury was that West Ham were left a man short on the bench; although I’m not sure whether this was due to league rules or the club saving on the cost of an extra train ticket to put towards the transfer kitty.
The Consistently Inconsistent Referee
Lee Mason is only an occasional Premier League referee who does most of his work in the lower leagues. On the evidence of yesterday it is not difficult to understand why. It would be wrong to argue the case that any of the decisions yesterday that directly affected West Ham’s cause were wrong but Mason’s performance was either astoundingly inconsistent or incompetent. Marko Arnautovic was foolish in the extreme to elbow the defender in the referee’s eye-line and deserved to go but by then Mason had been lenient with Tadic’s assault on Hernandez, missed completely an elbow on Arnautovic himself (to which he was no doubt reacting) as well as a trademark reckless challenge on the edge of the area by Mark Noble. The first penalty was as stonewall as it was unnecessary to concede, while the second, heart-breaking as it was, is equally impossible to contest. The accused, Pablo Zabaleta, was mightily aggrieved to have been penalised and whereas it was not the type of decision that would usually go against Manchester City he has to realise he is at West Ham now. In mitigation challenges such as Zabaletas often go unpunished just as Mason chose (or missed) to penalise what I felt was an obvious handball by a Southampton defender earlier in the second half.
Ten Men or Less (or should that be Fewer?)
There is never a good time to go down to ten men but after just half an hour when you are already a goal down is up there with the worst. Throw in the fact that several of the players who started contributed little or nothing then it left West Ham with a mountain to climb. Jose Fonte in particular had a hand in all three goals conceded and must now go straight to the top of the assist charts. Whoever thought that buying the ageing plane spotter was a good idea needs a slap and why he is seen as better option in the centre of defence than either Reece Burke or Declan Rice is a puzzle. Everyone has come across a colleague at work who constantly gives the impression of looking busy in effectachieves nothing at all; this is Andre Ayew. Always manages to photobomb TV close-ups dripping with sweat, hands on head, looking disappointed, cursing his luck or pleading with the referee yet his actual contribution is no more than a walk-on part. I have a suspicion that unbeknown to us there was a surreptitious body exchange with his brother, Jordan, during his time out injured last year. Finally, thanks Mark, but your time is now well and truly up. The treacle runner once again saw the game pass him by and why he was preferred to Pedro Obiang is another to add to the list of Slaven Bilic mysteries.
There Were Some Positives
In the circumstances it was a gutsy performance to come back from two goals down to almost snatch a draw with ten men (or fewer). What I feared would turn into a rampant demolition culminated with severe disappointment at the added time winner for the hosts; typical that it should be Charlie Austin, publicly maligned by our Chairman, who scored the decisive goal. Although the closeness of the game was partly due to Southampton not having the belief to press home their advantage it was also a commendable effort on behalf of the Hammers. In particular the return of Michail Antonio and the predatory skills of Javier Hernandez were impressive positives. With minimal pre-season preparation, Antonio’s physical presence, commitment, effort and enterprise gave hope that the unexpected could happen and his tenacity was rewarded in setting up the first goal on the stroke of half-time (the nature of which meant, ridiculously, that no assist credit is given). Little Pea demonstrated why his instinct will always deliver goals and he did this while also putting in tremendous effort as emergency cover for the disgraced Arnautovic. There was also another assured performance from Rice although I still believe he would be better deployed in the centre of defence.
Better on Paper Than on Grass
The dismissal and near-heroic fight-back distracted from the continued deficiencies and inadequacies of squad and manager. Even before the sending-off the defence was opened up at will down Southampton’s right wing and the first goal highlighted how vulnerable West Ham are against attacks at pace through the middle. The squad on paper looks strong enough but unfortunately the teams put out on the pitch are less than the sum of their parts; through a lack of cohesion, organisation plus the aforementioned passengers. With Manuel Lanzini and Chiekhou Kouyate still to return there should be a decent starting eleven in there somewhere if only it could be exploited, but cover is worryingly thin in some areas with only Lanzini capable of offering much in the way of subtlety and creativity. Patting ourselves on the back for a successful transfer window is looking increasingly premature. Hernandez looks to be a fantastic signing and cheap at half the price but my personal jury is still out as to what the others can offer. Hart doesn’t look the keeper he once was and I doubt whether he even dominates the area as much as Adrian does? Zabaleta has commitment and experience but does he have the legs for a long hard slog? I am definitely sceptical on Arnautovic and he has much to prove; he never consistently wowed at Stoke and is a fair-weather player who turns up when he feels like it really what we need? With the transfer window open for just over another week I hope that extra pace and athleticism in central midfield and defence are firmly on the radar. Otherwise current trajectory says no better than last season and quite possibly far worse!